'Onerous' process for Opportunity Scholarship in Pennsylvania may deter donors
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Education groups promoting a new tax credit for businesses funding scholarships are reporting confusion with an electronic application process that they fear could dissuade potential donors.
The Opportunity Scholarship tax credit was created last summer by state lawmakers seeking to provide scholarships for children living in the sending areas of low-performing schools. Modeled after an existing scholarship tax credit, the program allows businesses to reduce their tax liability by donating scholarship money the students can use to attend another school.
Businesses had applied to the original Educational Improvement Tax Credit with a paper form, but the Department of Community & Economic Development, which oversees the tax credits, included the new Opportunity Scholarship credit in its transition to electronic applications, which officials say reduce processing time.
The list of companies participating in the program is not public, but organizations seeking or promoting donations have reported frustration with the online form that they fear could dampen contribution rates.
Ronald Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, a major raiser of donations for the original Educational Improvement Tax Credit, said he has heard from accountants for several donating companies that the online application is cumbersome.
"We had a conference call recently with all eight dioceses and everyone was complaining," Mr. Bowes said. "I think there would be more if the process were easier. Anything like this is prohibitive," he said.
Otto Banks, executive director of the Reach Foundation, a statewide organization that promotes school choice, said he has heard from members, including diocesan officials throughout the state, that they consider the online application to be onerous.
In the past, the Association of Christian Schools International, a scholarship organization, has assisted companies in applying for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, said David Hegedus, the organization's director, but he said his group cannot access the online form.
So far the Pittsburgh diocese has collected about $120,000 from companies for the Opportunity Scholarship program. But Mr. Bowes said he believes the application process could be an impediment to getting future companies to donate.
Companies have subscribed to nearly $13 million in tax credits under the Opportunity Scholarship program, out of the $50 million allowed each year, said Steve Kratz, a spokesman for DCED. Scholarships funded through the program are intended to help students living in the sending districts of the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools attend another school, public or private.
DCED began transitioning to online applications in 1998, and it now has a single electronic application for its various programs, agency officials said.
"With the amount of applications that are anticipated and expected, we need to be able to handle this stuff electronically as opposed to manually," said Jill Collier, director of the customer service center at DCED. "For processing time and getting the money and the tax credits out the door, this is more efficient than what we were previously doing."
After agency employees received questions from applicants to the Opportunity Scholarship program --who sometimes asked about application questions not required for the program -- they developed a tutorial packet they plan to post on their website in the coming weeks. The tutorial consists of a 15-page document showing the application steps annotated with red arrows and circles.
"We're trying to make it easy for them," Ms. Collier said.
Mr. Bowes, of the Pittsburgh diocese, said he has been in contact with officials at DCED and in the office of the state House majority leader, Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods. After receiving a letter shortly before Christmas, Mr. Turzai's office is scheduling a meeting with DCED and diocesan officials, said Steve Miskin, a spokesman.
"It appears the administration, in trying to be efficient, had set up an online application process," Mr. Miskin said. "When doing something like that there's always some unintended consequences."
"It might just be a little slow," he said. "We're trying to work it out."
Mr. Banks, of the Reach Foundation, said he does not expect the electronic application to be an obstacle.
"I think it's an issue of a learning curve," he said. "It's a brand new program. Oftentimes a brand new program has to have a trial run to be able to address and assess the value and the functionality."
First Published January 6, 2013 12:00 am